Should you share your goals?

It’s complicated. And depends on the environment in which you share your goals.


Scenario 1: you post on facebook “This month I want to lose 1kg, I am worried I can’t do it – you guys should show me support”. Your friends; being the best of aspiring rationalist friends; believe your instructions are thought out and planned, After all your goal is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely (SMART). In the interest of complying with your request you get 17 likes and 10 comments of “wow awesome” and “you go man” and “that’s the way to do it”. Even longer ones of, “good planning will help you achieve your goals”, and some guy saying how he lost 2 kilos in a month, so 1kg should be easy as cake.

When you read all the posts your brain goes “wow, lost weight like that”, “earn’t the adoration of my friends for doing the thing”, and rewards you dopamine for your social support.  I feel great! So you have a party, eat what you like, relax and enjoy that feeling. One month later you managed to gain a kilo not lose one.


Scenario 2: You post on facebook, “This month I want to lose 2kg (since last month wasn’t so great). So all of you better hold me to that, and help me get there”. In the interest of complying with you, all your aspiring rationalist friends post things like, “Yea right”, “I’ll believe it when I see it”. “you couldn’t do 1kg last month, what makes you think you can do it now?”, “I predict he will lose one kilo but then put it back on again. haha”, “you’re so full of it. You want to lose weight; I expect to see you running with me at 8am 3 times a week”. two weeks later someone posts to your wall, “hows the weight loss going? I think you failed already”, and two people comment, “I bet he did”, and “actually he did come running in the morning”.

When you read all the posts your brain goes; “looks like I gotta prove it to them that I can do this, and hey this could be easy if they help me exercise”, no dopamine reward because I didn’t get the acclaim. After two weeks you are starting to lose track of the initial momentum, the chocolate is starting to move to the front of the cupboard again. When you see the post on your wall you double down; throw out the chocolate so it’s not in your temptation, and message the runner that you will be there tomorrow. After a month you actually did it, reporting back to your friends they actually congratulate you for your work; “my predictions were wrong; updating my beliefs”, “congratulations”, “teach me how you did it”..


Those scenarios were made up, but its designed to show that it depends entirely on the circumstances of your sharing your goals and the atmosphere in which you do it as well as how you treat the events surrounding sharing your goals.

Given that in scenario 2 asking for help yielded an exercise partner, and scenario 1 only yielded encouragement – there is a clear distinction between useful goal-sharing and less-useful goal sharing.

Yes; some goal sharing is ineffective; but some can be effective. Up to you whether you take the effective pathways or not.


Addendum: Treat people’s goals the right way; not the wrong way. Make a prediction on what you think will happen then ask them critical questions. If something sounds unrealistic – gently prod them in the direction of being more realistic (emphasis on gentle). (relevant example) “what happens over the xmas silly season when there is going to be lots of food around – how will you avoid putting on weight?”, “do you plan to exercise?”, “what do you plan to do differently from last month?”. DO NOT reward people for not achieving their goals.


Meta: this is a repost from when I wrote it here. Because I otherwise have difficulty finding it.

Also posted on lesswrong

related on lesswrong: http://lesswrong.com/lw/l5y/link_the_problem_with_positive_thinking/

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2016: a year in review in science

As another year comes around, and our solstice plans come to a head I want to review this year’s great progress in science to follow on from last year’s great review.

The general criteria is: World changing science, not politics.  That means a lot of space discoveries, a lot of technology, some groundbreaking biology, and sometimes new chemical materials.  There really are too many to list briefly.

With that in mind, below is the list:


Things that spring to mind when you ask people:

  • T3d printing organs and skin tissue http://www.bbc.com/news/health-35581454
  • Baby born with 3 parents. link
  • AlphaGo VS Lee Sedol
  • Cryopreservation of a rabbit brain – Link
  • Majorana fermions discovered (possibly quantum computing applications)
  • SpaceX landed Falcon 9 at sea – Link
  • Gravitational waves deteced by LIGO
  • Quantum logic gate with 99% accuracy at Oxford
  • TensorFlow has been out just over a year now.  An open source neural net project.

From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2016_in_science

Note: the whole thing is worth reading – I cherry picked a few really cool ones.

  • Astronomers identify IDCS 1426 as the most distant massive galaxy cluster yet discovered, at 10 billion light years from Earth.[4]
  • Mathematicians, as part of the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search, report the discovery of a new prime number: “274,207,281 − 1”
  • The world’s first 13 TB solid state drive (SSD) is announced, doubling the previous record for a commercially available SSD. link
  • A successful head transplant on a monkey by scientists in China is reported.
  • The University of New South Wales announces that it will begin human trials of the Phoenix99, a fully implantable bionic eye. Link
  • Scientists in the United Kingdom are given the go-ahead by regulators to genetically modify human embryos by using CRISPR-Cas9 and related techniques. Link
  • Scientists announce Breakthrough Starshot, a Breakthrough Initiatives program, to develop a proof-of-concept fleet of small centimeter-sized light sail spacecraft, named StarChip, capable of making the journey to Alpha Centauri, the nearest extrasolar star system, at speeds of 20% and 15% of the speed of light, taking between 20 and 30 years to reach the star system, respectively, and about 4 years to notify Earth of a successful arrival. Link
  • A new paper in Astrobiology suggests there could be a way to simplify the Drake equation, based on observations of exoplanets discovered in the last two decades. link
  • A detailed report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine finds no risk to human health from genetic modifications of food. Link
  • Researchers from Queensland’s Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, and the University of Queensland jointly report that the Bramble Cay melomys is likely extinct, adding: “Significantly, this probably represents the first recorded mammalian extinction due to anthropogenic climate change.” Link
  • Scientists announce detecting a second gravitational wave event (GW151226) resulting from the collision of black holes.   Link
  • The first known death caused by a self-driving car is disclosed by Tesla Motors. Link
  • A team at the University of Oxford achieves a quantum logic gate with record-breaking 99.9% precision, reaching the benchmark required to build a quantum computer. Link
  • The world’s first baby born through a controversial new “three parent” technique is reported. Link
  • A team at Australia’s University of New South Wales create a new quantum bit that remains in a stable superposition for 10 times longer than previously achieved. Link
  • Scientists at the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry officially recognizes names for four new chemical elements: Nihonium, Nh, 113; Moscovium, Mc, 115; Tennessine, Ts, 117 and Oganesson, Og, 118. Link

from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2016:


Notable deaths:


Nobel prizes:

  • The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2016 was awarded jointly to Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L. Feringa “for the design and synthesis of molecular machines”
  • The Nobel Prize in Physics 2016 was divided, one half awarded to David J. Thouless, the other half jointly to F. Duncan M. Haldane and J. Michael Kosterlitz “for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter”.
  • The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2016 was awarded to Yoshinori Ohsumi “for his discoveries of mechanisms for autophagy”.
  • The Nobel Prize in Literature 2016 was awarded to Bob Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.
  • The Nobel Peace Prize 2016 was awarded to Juan Manuel Santos “for his resolute efforts to bring the country’s more than 50-year-long civil war to an end”.
  • The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2016 was awarded jointly to Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmström “for their contributions to contract theory”

100 years ago (1916):

Nobel Prizes in 1916:

  • Physics – not awarded
  • Chemistry – not awarded
  • Medicine – not awarded
  • Literature – Carl Gustaf Verner von Heidenstam
  • Peace – not awarded

Other:

  • Pokemon go
  • Brexit – Britain secedes from the EU
  • Donald trump US president
  • SpaceX making more launches, and had a major explosion setback
  • Internet.org project delayed by SpaceX expolosion.

Meta: this took in the order of 3+ hours to write over several weeks.

Cross posted to Lesswrong here.

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Cholesterol in the body

I measured my cholesterol.  It’s a bit high at 5.5mmol/L.  But I was wondering what that means…

So I figured I would run the numbers.

I weigh 73.2kg today.  If you make the assumption that humans are a homogeneous blob and have uniform cholesterol through the body… (which is wrong because we are made up of lots of bones and organs and bits that really don’t have cholesterol) BUT.  If you make that assumption.

And assume that we can just multiply 5.5*73.2 = 402.6mmol of cholesterol in my body.

A quick google, and making some assumptions about the uniformity of the cholesterol molecules in my body; the molecular weight of cholesterol is 386.65 g/mol

A mmol is a millimol or a thousandth of a mol.  So I have 0.4026mols of cholesterol, and simply:

386.65grams per 1 mol, and we have 0.4026 mols, we do some simple rearranging and

386.65/1= X/0.4026  —->  386.65/1  * 0.4026 = X

X = 155.66529g of cholesterol in my body.


The density of cholesterol is 1.05g/cm^3 which means that this amount of cholesterol could fit into…  (155.6529/1.05 = 148.24cm^3)

5^3 = 125 so a 5cm cube, or say – two eggs in size, or maybe a bar of soap.


This also means that if my cholesterol were an ordinary (and probably more healthy) 3mmol/L

3*73.2 = 219.600mmol/1000=0.2196mol *386.65 = 84.908g of cholesterol, or probably a bit closer to one large chicken egg instead of two.


It’s interesting to keep this in mind, in wanting to make progress on chipping away at the bar of soap until I am carrying around a healthy amount of cholesterol.

This also means that an unhealthily high cholesterol.  Of say 13.9mmol/L and a chance of more than 1/5 of a heart attack over the next 10 years, is equivalent to (depending on your body weight – for me – (13.9*73.2 = 1017.48mmol/1000 = 1.01745*386.65 = 393.39g of cholesterol, or the equivalent of a not tiny but also not large sized bible.  Or maybe a large steak.  Maybe two sticks or one tub of butter (depending on the brand).  more than a can of soft drink but less than two cans.


Meta: this took 1.5 hours to write.  I didn’t realise how hard heuristics for certain weights are to find.  No one has ever written a table of them up.  I might get on that shortly.

 

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Learning to sing

I wanted to test out the skills of learning that I have gathered over time.  I wanted to be better at singing.  What better way to see if I know what I am talking about when I say “here’s how to learn a new area X that you have no idea about

This is part one of me following my own advice.

But I also failed. I did things in the wrong order. That was more fun. So I did step 3, then I did step 5ish because talking to friends about what I am doing is fun. Then I started again from step 1 because actually making progress on goals is important to me.


(skipping step zero – have a growth mindset because I am fairly sure I have one)

This is the process again from step 1:

step 1: Make sure your chosen X is aligned with your actual goals (are you doing it because you want to?). When you want to learn a thing; is X that thing?

I want to be able to hear a song and sing along in tune. For the purpose of once I have that skill I can gradually get better and better at singing along to songs that I know. That seems like fun, it’s a thing I have never been able to do.

step 2: Check that you want to learn X and that will be progress towards a goal (or is a terminal goal.

this goes along with my goal of being a spectacle/interesting person.

step 3: Make a list of what you think that X is. Break it down. Followed by what you know about X, and if possible what you think you are missing about X.

parts:
1. achieve volume control
how loud or soft the sound is that comes from you.
<can already do a bit>
2. hit a note accurately
start at the note, and hold the right note for as long as needed
<cannot do>
3. maintain duration
have enough breath and vocal cord exercise to sing for as long as needed
<cannot do>
4. ability to switch between notes as required
accurately change from note to note.
<cannot do>
5. have a range of high to low pitch of notes.
be able to hit all notes in at least one and preferably more octaves. (accuracy elsewhere)
<can do a bit>
6. clarity of sound
sharp, clear, not wavering sounding and one note, not several.
<bad at it>
7. good breathing
be able to take in lots of air, and sing from the lungs not the neck.
<not sure>
8. accuracy at volume, high notes at volume,
advanced skill
<not yet>

step 4: Do some research to confirm that your rough definition of X is actually correct. Confirm that what you know already is true, if not – replace that existing knowledge with true things about X. Do not jump into everything yet.
https://www.reddit.com/r/singing/comments/2cdd0l/article_day_one_whats_the_very_first_thing_i_can/

Pitch matching. (hear a sound and sing it)
Interval training. (jump between two notes accurately)
Short melody – 3 notes or more.
Scales – can be done at the same time as short melody.

more step 3 from me:
Be able to follow sheet music and sing to it. (optional if I want to)

step 5: Figure out what experts in the area know (by topic area name), try to find what strategies experts in the area use to go about improving themselves.

I have two good friends who are excellent musicians, N has been teaching piano for 10+ years. and Y is a world class choir master and singer. That means I lucked out on the skilled friends. I don’t want to be an idiot who says the equivalent of “teach me everything while I stand on one leg”, but I can reasonably ask a few questions and get guidance.

Bearing in mind that while talking to Y they mentioned that their two year old daughter can sing in tune because there is a genetic factor to ability, and while moving around the house she makes up tunes and sings them. They can sing a melody and she can copy even when she can’t talk yet.

When talking to N, they would routinely be surprised that I can’t just “do this”. and “you just hear it”. Which is just a funny way to show the difference between experts and people with marginally more than zero skill. I have an ego that’s far too big to be discouraged by these things, but I can definitely see how that would make people who didn’t “have it” give up early.

At this point, often experts don’t know how to teach the very very basics because they are well into knowing how it’s done. It would be like asking a normal person how you walk up stairs. “you just do it”, how do you breathe? “I dunno you just do”. I am not complaining, just remarking on the phenomenon of the competence cycle:

Unconscious incompetence
conscious incometence
conscious competence
unconscious competence.


At this point I already found a phone app called “pitch lab lite” which visualises which note on a scale you are currently making. Y almost sneered at the app and insisted he learnt by ear. I am sure that the feedback helps, so I am not putting it down. Y gave me exercises of singing 1, 1-2-1, 1-2-3-2-1, 1-2-3-4-3-2-1, and so on but keeping in tune. I did a few in person and got minor corrections, and using the app on my own I can improve gradually.

N was not sure what to offer and suggested interval training.

step 6: common mistakes people make.

<not sure that this is necessary at the current stage>

further steps: at this point I am not sure that I need to do the further steps, because they are mostly about getting amazing resources. Something I don’t need until I am at least a little better at singing. I am going to try the exercise each day, a few times a day for practice, using the app for feedback I am trying to keep on the right note. I expect that I will lack the ability to get better beyond a certain point where the feedback basically looks much the same no matter what you do.


I want to bring up 14 because I think it’s now extraordinarily relevant.

try to find experiments you can conduct on yourself to confirm you are on the right track towards X. Or ways to measure yourself (measurement or testing is one of the most effective ways to learn) (1hour per experiment, 10-20 experiments)

I have been practicing daily for a few weeks now, and I am not entirely sure I am getting better.  I am going to have to figure out how to design a feedback loop.  Probably with Audacity, visualisation apps and some YouTube videos that I can sing along to.

Any time I am in a place with music playing I try to have the visualisation app going so that I can get used to seeing the feedback of what I am listening to.

unfortunately it looks like my next step is going to involve some deliberate practice (with a computer setup) and be harder to do while passive, i.e. singing along to things when I drive.  This will likely slow my progress down.


meta: this took about 1.5hrs to write and I wrote it up for myself, to keep track of my progress.

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Mistakes bad enough you learn, but not bad enough they kill you

When we suggest to learn by doing, what we tend to mean is learn by making mistakes.  Or teach your system 1 to be better calibrated by making mistakes and adjusting.  Which is fine for the little mistakes: you learn which brand of cereal you like by buying the wrong one, trying it and then writing a note on your shopping list for yourself to buy the right one next time.

When you get to big mistakes it’s a bit harder to learn by doing because you don’t always get a second chance.  Some examples include:

  • Losing a million dollars on a sure bet.
  • Breaking your neck in a recklessly fun car accident
  • Committing suicide instead of asking for help from your peers when you just went through a relationship ending
  • Injuring yourself with industrial machinery

These all carry a pattern in them.  It doesn’t take a genius to say; well if I die – I can’t sit around and say – well next time I won’t be so careless or reckless or risk taking or next time I will be more careful or conservative…


So how is it?  Why is is that we care about learning by trial and error yet that looks like a terrible idea, leading to death and bad decisions over and over.  I propose a maxim:

You want to make mistakes that are bad enough that you learn from them, but not bad enough that they kill you.

To look back at the early examples while applying this maxim.  Examples that might teach you to be careful without killing you:

  • Losing a few hundred dollars on a sure bet.
  • Breaking your leg in a recklessly fun car accident
  • Getting piss-blind drunk and making a fool of yourself when you just went through a relationship ending
  • injuring yourself with hand tools (that don’t nearly spin as fast as industrial ones)

So how do we have the right kind of mistakes and not the wrong ones?  I don’t really know, but for starters I would say doing less dangerous behaviours and more safe-risk behaviours


It’s very hard to know what it feels like from the inside of a bad risk taking behaviour VS an okay risk taking behaviour.  It might be hard but I suggest classifying risks into multiple categories, and permitting yourself to go through risks that are safe, while restricting risks that are dangerous.  Risks that are safe:

  • low bets, in the few dollars, less than a handful of times a week
  • running late
  • trying new foods
  • trying new hobbies
  • doing activities slightly outside of your comfort zone
  • asking difficult questions
  • trying tasks that are a little difficult or new
  • working hard
  • sleeping a bit less

Dangerous risks might include:

  • big bets
  • signing up for dangerous activities
  • extreme sports
  • changing your entire diet, or fasting without planning or warning or knowing what you are doing.
  • having unprotected sex
  • taking drugs without experience or knowledge about what they will do
  • not sleeping
  • getting into fights with strangers
  • using powerful tools or equipment (industrial anything, or anything that spins very fast)
  • getting very very drunk
  • doing anything at high speeds – i.e. speeding in a car, boat or plane.
  • Using sharp objects while not concentrating

Near miss

Also in this category of risky things is near-misses.  We don’t always have accidents bad enough to register as “dangerous” or “deadly”, but we still want to learn from them.  This might involve being extra attentive to anything that might be noticed as a near miss.  I can’t tell you how to do that (not today in this post, but maybe in the future).


As a reminder again:

You want to make mistakes that are bad enough that you learn from them, but not bad enough that they kill you.


Meta: this took less than an hour to write.

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Good and bad ways to do Comfort Zone Expansion (CoZE)

From the CFAR syallabus, (which may in time change) is a suggestion to take actions that put you outside of your comfort zone even though you might not want to.  Their rational is something along the lines of encouraging you to not settle on a local maxima (your current comfort zone) but instead strive for the true greater and more awesome maxima of other experiences you are currently avoiding because they are outside your comfort zone.

Without giving away their full process, it looks something like:

  • Choose an experience that you’d like to explore
  • Devise an experiment
  • Actually try it
  • Digest the experience

I have previously disagreed with leaving your comfort zone, and advised that there is a way to stay in your comfort zone but still make it larger.  I said:


I would start with evaluating and defining/understanding your comfort zone. I think the best way to explain this is to use a worked example: “going to a bar”

Things about bars that put me outside my comfort zone:

  • Alcohol
  • loud noises
  • strangers
  • uncomfortable seats
  • public places
  • dim lights
  • not able to have valuable conversations with people
  • bad public transport so getting home is difficult
  • messes with my sleep cycle
  • being alone (not having friends there)
  • talking to strangers
  • pubs are expensive
  • fear of having bad conversations
  • fear of getting in a bar fight
  • don’t care for sport on tv’s around bars
  • don’t like being near gambling machines in bars
  • don’t like bar food
  • don’t know what to wear
  • don’t feel comfortable dancing
  • people smoking

This^ is a long list; not all of these apply to me, but each problem may have various solutions:

  • loud noises – wear earplugs, find a bar without loud music playing,
  • don’t like bar food – eat elsewhere first
  • messes with sleep cycle – set alarms or systems that you follow, pre-committing to the decision to leave in time for your normal sleep schedule. Go to lunch-time bars, not lat night bars.
  • talking to strangers – take friends, make sure to go with them, ask friends to help you make more friends. etc.

Eventually most of these have a solution. At the end of running through your list of things, if you can’t solve enough of them, or the solutions are not good enough, you can consider attacking the goal you set out to do.

Why do I want to go to a bar? Is there a better way to achieve that desire?

Reasons to go to a bar:

  • all my friends seem to like it
  • meet new people
  • my favourite band is playing
  • I like pub trivia etc.

These reasons have solutions of their own.

  • favourite band – see if they are playing at other venues.
  • meet new people – try meetups, try local groups.
  • friends like it – do other things with friends, i.e. dinner, board games evening. (get better friends/friends you share mutual interests with)

at the end of the thought exercise you should either be happy to do the thing, or happy preferring not doing the thing. These are the win-states of considering setting out to do X.

And further:

Depends on what is limiting your comfort zone and whether that limit is reasonable or unreasonable. I can’t say for your life whether a limit is reasonable or unreasonable, and to do so yourself might involve comparing your life to the lives of other people and evaluating whether you are fulfilled, happy or missing out on something that other people have.

For example – I am definitely missing out on sky-diving by not sky-diving, but I don’t really feel like I want to do it. Personal choice and all; not really missing out on something by not being comfortable doing it.

A comfort zone has a purpose, as does stereotypes, social structures, religion, fear, disgust, pain, monogamy, straw man arguments, and many more.

To blindly fight existing systems is as bad as to follow them to the letter. I believe in questioning and evaluating before stepping forward. (System 2 over system 1 in this case – thinking over automated)

To take the bar example again: If the reason why I don’t like bars is they are too loud; going to more bars may do several things:

  • cause hearing loss
  • cause me to be even more annoyed by loud bars
  • cause me to get used to it
  • cause me to be more often in an uncomfortable state of being possibly all at once.

If on the other hand I go in search of non-loud bars I can maintain a comfort zone of not too loud things while doing the task (going to a bar) its also a win-state, and I avoid the uncomfortable experience of gradually getting used to it.


The above exercise essentially does a goal-factoring (also a CFAR technique) on what you want to do that is outside your comfort zone, why you want to do it – is there a better way to achieve those same goals? etc.  I find comfort zone to usually be a good thing.  And exist for a reason.  But YMMV, remember Applicable advice and it’s addendum as well as this addon to Scott’s piece on the same topic.  If you find yourself with a restrictive comfort zone that does not yield to analysis, then perhaps overcoming the activation energy and using willpower to push yourself into that new situation will be a better idea than doing the classic think-then-act behaviour.  I know that in game and Pick up, there is a piece of advice along the lines of the 3 second rule, if you see someone, and you want to approach – you have to approach and say something to them within 3 seconds.  This advice works on a very specific type of approach anxiety where your barrier of “what will they think of me?” can be overcome by approaching them before you have time to have that thought.  You might also call it a no johns rule.  But using that advice severely depends on exactly what the nature of your problem is.

And finally have you tried solving the problem.


Meta: this took under an hour to write, and I mostly needed it so I could refer to it in another post about making mistakes.

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Good and bad ways to do Comfort Zone Expansion (CoZE)

From the CFAR syallabus, (which may in time change) is a suggestion to take actions that put you outside of your comfort zone even though you might not want to.  Their rational is something along the lines of encouraging you to not settle on a local maxima (your current comfort zone) but instead strive for the true greater and more awesome maxima of other experiences you are currently avoiding because they are outside your comfort zone.

Without giving away their full process, it looks something like:

  • Choose an experience that you’d like to explore
  • Devise an experiment
  • Actually try it
  • Digest the experience

I have previously disagreed with leaving your comfort zone, and advised that there is a way to stay in your comfort zone but still make it larger.  I said:


I would start with evaluating and defining/understanding your comfort zone. I think the best way to explain this is to use a worked example: “going to a bar”

Things about bars that put me outside my comfort zone:

  • Alcohol
  • loud noises
  • strangers
  • uncomfortable seats
  • public places
  • dim lights
  • not able to have valuable conversations with people
  • bad public transport so getting home is difficult
  • messes with my sleep cycle
  • being alone (not having friends there)
  • talking to strangers
  • pubs are expensive
  • fear of having bad conversations
  • fear of getting in a bar fight
  • don’t care for sport on tv’s around bars
  • don’t like being near gambling machines in bars
  • don’t like bar food
  • don’t know what to wear
  • don’t feel comfortable dancing
  • people smoking

This^ is a long list; not all of these apply to me, but each problem may have various solutions:

  • loud noises – wear earplugs, find a bar without loud music playing,
  • don’t like bar food – eat elsewhere first
  • messes with sleep cycle – set alarms or systems that you follow, pre-committing to the decision to leave in time for your normal sleep schedule. Go to lunch-time bars, not lat night bars.
  • talking to strangers – take friends, make sure to go with them, ask friends to help you make more friends. etc.

Eventually most of these have a solution. At the end of running through your list of things, if you can’t solve enough of them, or the solutions are not good enough, you can consider attacking the goal you set out to do.

Why do I want to go to a bar? Is there a better way to achieve that desire?

Reasons to go to a bar:

  • all my friends seem to like it
  • meet new people
  • my favourite band is playing
  • I like pub trivia etc.

These reasons have solutions of their own.

  • favourite band – see if they are playing at other venues.
  • meet new people – try meetups, try local groups.
  • friends like it – do other things with friends, i.e. dinner, board games evening. (get better friends/friends you share mutual interests with)

at the end of the thought exercise you should either be happy to do the thing, or happy preferring not doing the thing. These are the win-states of considering setting out to do X.

And further:

Depends on what is limiting your comfort zone and whether that limit is reasonable or unreasonable. I can’t say for your life whether a limit is reasonable or unreasonable, and to do so yourself might involve comparing your life to the lives of other people and evaluating whether you are fulfilled, happy or missing out on something that other people have.

For example – I am definitely missing out on sky-diving by not sky-diving, but I don’t really feel like I want to do it. Personal choice and all; not really missing out on something by not being comfortable doing it.

A comfort zone has a purpose, as does stereotypes, social structures, religion, fear, disgust, pain, monogamy, straw man arguments, and many more.

To blindly fight existing systems is as bad as to follow them to the letter. I believe in questioning and evaluating before stepping forward. (System 2 over system 1 in this case – thinking over automated)

To take the bar example again: If the reason why I don’t like bars is they are too loud; going to more bars may do several things:

  • cause hearing loss
  • cause me to be even more annoyed by loud bars
  • cause me to get used to it
  • cause me to be more often in an uncomfortable state of being possibly all at once.

If on the other hand I go in search of non-loud bars I can maintain a comfort zone of not too loud things while doing the task (going to a bar) its also a win-state, and I avoid the uncomfortable experience of gradually getting used to it.


The above exercise essentially does a goal-factoring (also a CFAR technique) on what you want to do that is outside your comfort zone, why you want to do it – is there a better way to achieve those same goals? etc.  I find comfort zone to usually be a good thing.  And exist for a reason.  But YMMV, remember Applicable advice and it’s addendum as well as this addon to Scott’s piece on the same topic.  If you find yourself with a restrictive comfort zone that does not yield to analysis, then perhaps overcoming the activation energy and using willpower to push yourself into that new situation will be a better idea than doing the classic think-then-act behaviour.  I know that in game and Pick up, there is a piece of advice along the lines of the 3 second rule, if you see someone, and you want to approach – you have to approach and say something to them within 3 seconds.  This advice works on a very specific type of approach anxiety where your barrier of “what will they think of me?” can be overcome by approaching them before you have time to have that thought.  You might also call it a no johns rule.  But using that advice severely depends on exactly what the nature of your problem is.

And finally have you tried solving the problem.


Meta: this took under an hour to write, and I mostly needed it so I could refer to it in another post about making mistakes.

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Qualia of the problem

I have a generic rant about the qualia of the problem.  It goes something like this:

Qualia are a philosophical concept, they refer to subjective personal experience that can not be described, they are personally experienced and cannot be communicated.  Almost sad, how we can never truly share the same experience of us experiencing that sunset, of course we can show someone, or we can tell someone, but we can never directly impart the qualia of experiencing that thing.

With regard to problems and problem solving – I don’t smoke, and I have never gone through the process of trying to quite smoking, but if I did there would be a reason that I was originally smoking and a reason I wanted to quit.  With that in mind, I can propose suggestions for you to the generic, “quit smoking” and what I know about the problem, but even if I had quit myself, I would have probably had a completely different experience of quitting and what was stopping me and what I had to overcome in order to succeed in that goal.

Even if I quit smoking for “health reasons” and you are quitting smoking for “health reasons” those health reasons might not be the same health reasons.

We are humans, we are fallible and we like to summarise when we describe or situation to others.  We do this because it’s easier to summarise than it is to go into detail.  When it comes to problem solving – summarising does the opposite of being helpful, in fact it tends to hide the nature of problems and often obscure us from the solutions.  Einstein said, “if I had an hour to solve a problem, I would spend 55 minutes figuring out what the problem is and 5 minutes solving it”

When I ask you what the qualia are of your problem, yes, qualia are unsharable but all the same – I want you to go into details about what the goal is, what is in the way and what it feels like from the inside, trying to quit smoking or choosing to smoke anyway.  And even though some days you will choose to keep smoking, you can still quit smoking even though you will some days choose to keep smoking.  It’s almost like two minds fighting for control of the body.

When you go into details about the health problems, it needs to be abundantly clear that last week you walked up a set of stairs with some friends and you couldn’t keep up and you realised that being able to breathe was more important than smoking, and so you want to quit because you can feel what it’s like to be on one of those machines that breathe for you and it’s not pretty.

Or is it about looking hot for summer?  Because you look in the mirror and think – one of these days I have to start paying attention to my body and making it look like how I want it to look.  Which qualia are your qualia?  And now that we know which qualia are yours, what exactly is the problem related to those quales and how do we fix it?

I have said this rant or a variant of this rant so many times that I can repeat it and explain it on many problem areas.

The thing to realise is that to solve a problem you need to delve into what exactly it feels like to have that problem and usually when you are solving the problem is at a different time to when you are having the problem which means you need to understand the problem abundantly and from a distance in order to solve it.


Try this

  • What is the problem?
  • When was the last time it happened, describe it?
  • What did it feel like to be having the problem?
  • What have you tried to fix the problem?  What happened? Did it work?  Why would it have worked, why won’t it work in the future?
  • What is the most obvious solution?  Why does it usually work for other people?  Why will it work this time?  Why won’t it work?  Can you do something about that to make it actually work?
  • Describe what you were thinking when you were going through the problem?

Meta: this took 1 hour to write.

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Burn rates

Burn rate is a term used to describe a startup that is not yet making more money than it spends.  It makes a lot of sense if you can imagine a company like Uber thinking, hmm – we need users, but to get users we need a fully set up ride-sharing system, and to have enough money to build and maintain a fully set up ride-share system we need a fully set up ride sharing system to generate enough revenue to pay for the development alone.

If you are a small business (not a startup usually) you might think – is there a market here?  Does anyone actually want to buy icecream, from me, on this corner in the middle of nowhere.  So you might start by making a batch, selling to your friends, going to a local market for a few months, making sure people want your product, opening a small online store, processing orders for delivery, then eventually open a shop front, then another THEN TAKE OVER THE WORLD.

You might call this strategy a start small; proven market, grow to meet demand, strategy.

In contrast – thinking like a growth-fuelled startup – if we put together a team of coders and instead of building up from small, launch an Uber with an MVP that appeals to your audience, already working and growing from there…  while burning through a pile of cash, desperately trying to break even and turn big bucks of profit…


Burn rates apply to your own personal life and finances too.  the You Need A Budget website, as well as a few books on personal finance (that after a while start to all overlap), say similar things, think of your bank account as a runway, think of your daily, weekly and monthly spends as your speed down that runway.  The bigger your bank (or savings) budget, the longer the runway is.

Remembering of course that as a startup or a business you want to be travelling fast enough to take off (you want your finances to carry you for your whole life, or for the business to start lifting itself).  For your personal life, if you get sick for a month, if you break a leg and can’t go to work – how long of a runway do you have before you crash on a friends couch because you ran out of money to pay rent…  If you’ve never thought about this, maybe you don’t need to.  Or maybe you have never yet needed to, and that time will come when you will need to be prepared for the next black swan.

The point is that burn rates exist as a concept, and your runway is only so long before the banks start foreclosing on your house and you are pawning your measly possessions to scrape by.


Learning from this

I know I don’t ever take actions without instructions.  So here they are:

  1. Look at your bank account.
  2. Work out how much comes in each month (if you get paid in a regular cycle, use this, don’t bother calculating things right now)
  3. Work out how much goes out each month (or other cycle)
  4. If the money/savings is going down STOP AND FIX THIS RIGHT AWAY.  This short instruction set will not tell you how, google it.
  5. If the money is going up, work out how many months (or cycles) ahead you are.  So if you were removed from your ability to earn, but still had to pay all your expenses up until you ran out of money – how much time would you have to burn?
  6. Are you okay with that length of burn?  Some industries are easy to get a job in, some are harder.  A highly specialised programmer might have a high paid job but be out of work for six months if they get laid off.
  7. Contemplate future major spending – i.e. owning a phone, computer, car, house, investments, or other large lump sums.  How long until you can afford both that large expense and a few cycles of burn?
  8. If a relative or friend called you tomorrow to borrow a few thousand dollars, would you still have enough burn?

This exercise in checking out your finances does not tell you how to fix them, but it can hopefully make you ask the question, “am I okay with the current state of affairs?”


Meta: this took less than an hour to write.

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Addendum to: “should you reverse any advice you

Should You Reverse Any Advice You Hear?

This post relates to the above SSC post.  Scott says:

That lots of the advice people give is useful for some people, but that the opposite advice is useful for other people.

For example, “You need to stop being so hard on yourself, remember you are your own worst critic” versus “Stop making excuses for yourself, you will never be able to change until you admit you’ve hit bottom.”

Or “You need to remember that the government can’t solve all problems and that some regulations are counterproductive” versus “You need to remember that the free market can’t solve all problems and that some regulations are necessary.”

Or “You need to pay more attention to your diet or you’ll end up very unhealthy” versus “You need to pay less attention to your weight or you’ll end up in a spiral of shame and self-loathing and at risk of eating disorders.”

Or “Follow your dreams, you don’t want to be working forever at a job you hate”, versus “Your dream of becoming a professional cosplayer may not be the best way to ensure a secure future for your family, go into petroleum engineering instead.”

Or “You need to be more conscious of how your actions in social situations can make other people uncomfortable and violate their boundaries” versus “You need to overcome your social phobia by realizing that most interactions go well and that probably talking to people won’t always make them hate you and cause you to be ostracized forever.”

Or “You need to be less selfish and more considerate of the needs of others” versus “You can’t live for others all the time, you need to remember you deserve to be happy as well.”

When I wrote Applicable advice and it’s addendum, I genuinely had the same problem in mind.  However my solution to the same problem sits as a meta-strategy on his suggestion.  This makes me very happy to know that I quite reasonably agree with him.  I think of it as confirmation that I am travelling in the right direction.  To be clear about this I am going to work through his suggestion and apply my suggestion over the top.


Let’s look at the objectivist example given:

For example, maybe you join the Objectivist movement. You follow lots of Objectivist blogs that give you strong arguments for selfishness, hear lots of anecdotes of people being hurt by excessive altruism, and get exposed to any studies that seem to support the pro-selfishness point of view. You probably end up more selfish than you were before you joined the Objectivists.

Consider two possible interpretations of that result.

First, Objectivism might be a successful support group. People who aren’t selfish enough realize they need more selfishness in their lives, join the Objectivists, and support each other as they work to overcome their inbuilt disposition to ignore their own needs. Gradually they all become psychologically healthier people.

Or second, Objectivism might be a vicious cycle. The people who are already too selfish see an opportunity to be selfish with a halo. They join Objectivism, egg each other on, and become even more selfish still. Meanwhile, the people who could really have benefitted from Objectivism, the people who feel guilted into living for others all the time while ignoring their own needs, are off in some kind of effective charity group, egging each other on to be even more self-destructively altruistic.

What exactly have we done here with a piece of advice like “join the objectivists”?  As I wrote in Applicable advice:

If you take the time to understand why it exists and how it works; you can better take advantage of what it offers.

Understand that if this advice worked for someone there was a way that it worked for that someone. And considering if there is a way to make it work for someone, you can maybe find a way to make it work for you too.

As the example describes, we have an idea of what joining objectivist groups will do to you, we also know who it might work for, and who it might not work for including the obvious failure mode (if you are already too selfish you might be made worse, or be using the group as an excuse to be selfish with a halo).

I find this a stronger strategy than just reversing the advice and seeing if it fits more.  The reason it’s stronger is we would be adding complexity to the model to better explain the observations we have made.  If we don’t know why the advice works for some people, and we can assume our introspective tendencies – the ones that sit in system 2, are biased to tell us the good news about how great we are.  We need something better to determine of we actually are in need of the advice or the reverse advice.

The strategy of “you should reverse any advice you hear and see if it fits”, is missing complexity to help us decide if it is appropriate to be applied or not.  I am suggesting that complexity is in understanding why that advice exists and how it works to push people in the right direction.

I hope this helps tie things together and explain why this model needs more complexity.


Meta: this took 45 minutes to write.

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